4.02.2010

David Frum = Balaam

Something occurred to me as I was reading this post by Julian Sanchez (courtesy of Jonathan Chait):
One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!) This epistemic closure can be a source of solidarity and energy, but it also renders the conservative media ecosystem fragile. Think of the complete panic China’s rulers feel about any breaks in their Internet firewall: The more successfully external sources of information have been excluded to date, the more unpredictable the effects of a breach become. Internal criticism is then especially problematic, because it threatens the hermetic seal. It’s not just that any particular criticism might have to be taken seriously coming from a fellow conservative. Rather, it’s that anything that breaks down the tacit equivalence between “critic of conservatives and “wicked liberal smear artist” undermines the effectiveness of the entire information filter. If disagreement is not in itself evidence of malign intent or moral degeneracy, people start feeling an obligation to engage it sincerely—maybe even when it comes from the New York Times. And there is nothing more potentially fatal to the momentum of an insurgency fueled by anger than a conversation. A more intellectually secure conservatism would welcome this, because it wouldn’t need to define itself primarily in terms of its rejection of an alien enemy.

First of all, I think Sanchez is right on with this. While anyone with any particularly developed ideological persuasion is at risk of succumbing to an echo chamber mentality, the contemporary Right has created such an insular, self-sustaining worldview that any dissent (internal or external) is anathema.

However, I think one needn't look so far as China for an apt parallel. Indeed, I think a more relevant example exists as a subset of the Right as a whole, and explains this epistemic enclosure to a great degree.

The Right comprises many sub-groups, but none seem more ardent in their devotion their ideology than the social conservatives. For the most part, "social conservative" is another way of saying "fundamentalist Christian," though I'm sure there are exceptions. And there is an element to fundamentalist Christianity that makes believers particularly susceptible to intellectual insularity.

There is a distressing millenarian obsessiveness on the Christian Right. The Book of Revelation is the subject of ongoing interpretation, with a constant search for signs of Christ's return undergirded by a belief that these are the End Times. Christians are warned of the False Prophet, who will deceive the world into worshipping the Antichrist. (Read for yourself. A Google search for "revelation false prophet" yields numerous fascinating hits.) His message is beguiling and sounds like truth to the easily-led, and Christians are to be on their guard for appealing messages that cause the weak to stray.

Now, obviously I don't think that ardent Right-wingers would lump David Frum in with the Antichrist. (OK, fine. I wouldn't put it past Dinesh D'Souza.) But a large segment of their base are indocrinated regularly that Satan is an alluring, effective deceiver, and his minions will tell lies that sound like truth to sway the masses. It's precisely the kind of mindset that leads to unquestioning loyalty to biased sources, constantly spewing forth a reassuring message that what they already believe is right, and those who question it are not only wrong, but (as Sanchez puts it) have malign intent and moral degeneracy.

12 comments:

  1. To be fair, this closure also exists on the left as well in a whole host of areas. Abortion, War, etc. where logic and facts are ignored, or even any toleration of other opinions.
    Now the difference between Democrats and Republicans is that Obama (as the face of the Democratic party) is fundamentally almost a Centrist, and is overwhelmingly a pragmatist. His war strategy, his openness to drilling and nuclear power, etc. are all testament to this. The Republicans don't have anyone in any position so we get to choose who defines what the Republicans believe. I think believing the Republicans are nothing but Teabaggers easily led by Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh gives Democrats a false sense of superiority, and can lead Democrats to underestimate how much appeal many Republicans (and their ideals) actually have.

    charo

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  2. Darn, and it started off so well, too. I actually agree with charo's first sentence. And Dr. Dan's line about imputing moral degeneracy and malign intent to people with different opinins? If that doesn't apply to the HuffPo and DailyKos crowd, well, Charlie Rangel is an honest man.

    President Pyrrhus, OTOH, is as much a centrist as the Westboro Baptist crowd are centrist Christians. He isn't open to drilling, he is open to looking like he's open to drilling. His war strategy is to adopt everything Bush did, plus add back rendition. And he... calm blue ocean, calm blue ocean... OK, I'm better now.

    Anyway, humans generally don't appreciate the differences between deductive logic and inductive logic. That leads to a lot of the "if you disagree with my position, you must be a godless minion of Satan/clueless collectivist airhead" stuff.

    O wad some Power the giftie gie us
    To see oursels as ithers see us!
    It wad frae monie a blunder free us
    An foolish notion:
    What airs in dress an gait wad lea'es us,
    An ev'n devotion!

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  3. Is this where I'm meant to defend HuffPo and Kos?

    Your comment comparing Obama to the Westboro Baptist neanderthals is so absurd as to be beneath reply.

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  4. On point one, no, because I'm right.

    On point two, I'm not comparing Pres. Super-genius to WBC idiots. I'm comparing the idea that Pres. Bipartisan is a centrist to the idea that WBC Neand... wait, I'll get deserved hate mail from Neanderthals... WBC loonies are centrist. Let me put it another way. The President is no more a centrist than Charlie Rangel is an honest man. Better?

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  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  6. I mistyped the first time, so let's try this again.

    1) The next time you consider comparing anyone to the Westboro Baptist excrement on my blog, I would urge you to pause, think about who they are, who I am, and how I am inclined to react to said comparison. It is not a comparison I would encourage you to make lightly.

    2) Moving on the the point I assume you were trying to make, your example makes no sense. By supporting offshore drilling, Obama isn't centrist? By taking an action his opposition ostensibly supports, to the consternation of his more ideological supporters, he is less centrist? I do not follow your logic.

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  7. 1) I didn't make the comparison lightly. But since it distresses you, I will avoid it in the future.

    2) If President Obama supports offshore drilling, he has a funny way of showing it. The political aspect of his announcement is at least as significant as the energy part. But the President's plan also cancels approved leases off Alaska, delays leases off the Virgina coast, and proposes a study that just kicks the can down the road for production in the south Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf, parts of which were open before this announcement AIUI. In short, more delay in drilling, more oil imports with consequent balance of trade deficits, and fewer jobs for Americans.

    Ask your possibly related energy authority what the long-term result of Pres. Obama's proposed actions will be. I'd love to hear his view.

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  8. John, if you think that any comparison between President Obama and Fred Phelps is apt, then you are unhinged. Seriously.

    I am only guessing, but my best guess is that the long-term energy impact of Obama's proposals will be negligible.

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  9. I see that the WBC stuff prevents any communication. I regret my poor choice of analogies. Let me just observe that Pres. Obama's policies are hurting many, many more people than Phelps ever could imagine hurting in his wildest dreams.

    One can only remark that if the long term impact is negligible, then he can't really be said to be making any concession towards the political center.

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  10. @ GD

    You're doing that narrative thing you do that makes my teeth ache.

    Most people who would identify themselves as strong left argue that Obama is a centrist. They have a long laundry list of reasons why they apply this title.

    Many people who identify themselves as right or right-center have tagged Obama as "liberal", in spite of the fact that the aforementioned liberals don't agree with the assessment.

    By your assessment, the liberals are taking "evidence of centrism" (erroneously) on face value, and conservatives are taking "evidence of centrism" (correctly) as political posturing.

    You may, in fact, be correct, but you never seem to cross the boundary to examine the other side's statements.

    Admittedly, I'm not as regular a reader of this blog as you appear to be, so I may have missed it, but I have yet to here you say, "Liberal commentator Foo says Obama indicates that he's a centrist by Obama's action Bar. However, we can see from This, That, and The Other that Obama's action Bar doesn't indicate what Liberal commentator Foo thinks it does."

    Instead, you seem to focus an awful lot on what conservative commentators say about Obama *not* being a centrist. Confirmation bias, perhaps?

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  11. Sorry about the teeth. I don't claim to be disinterested, I'm a gadfly. I don't care what the left says about Pres. Obama, I'm pointing out that he's not anywhere near the center if you look at his actions.

    Obama's action Bar (drilling) resulted in cancelled offshore oil leases that had been approved. He proposed to open some new areas, but subject to Congressional approval, so he has an out either way. He kicked the can down the road in other aspects. How the Administration can spin this as Obama supporting offshore drilling is a mystery, because he canned approved leases. What does he believe about drilling? What is his policy? I can't tell.

    Obama's action Foo (nuclear policy) is Yet Another Example of wanting to eat the cake and have it too. Stripped of cant, he said we won't use nukes if NPT-compliant regimes attack us, even with WMD, unless he thinks it is OK after reconsidering. What the hell? He wants to be seen as a disarmer by the left (we won't use nukes) but doesn't want to be seen as weak on defending the US by the center and right (we may after all).

    None of the actions are centrist in the slightest. Rather, they are incoherent. Obama isn't left, right, or center. He is a chameleon who just wants to eat his waffle. He is a ditherer who won't take a position unless he can blame someone else if things go wrong.

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  12. I had to double-check dictionary.com to make sure gadfly didn't also mean "disingenious nitwit"; I think "pest" is appropriate enough.
    Let me see if I can spell this out for you. Cancelling approved leases that companies have been sitting on in hopes of controlling supply MIGHT have cost the job of the person who was responsible for filing all that paperwork. Surveying millions of square miles of ocean floor is going to take a lot of scientists and 10x as many laborers with a lot of very expensive machinery a long time; that is creating jobs. Obama has not renewed the original moratorium that even the Bush administration had renewed; but he has maintained a moratorium on those areas most obviously deserving of protection for any number of valid reasons ("not having oil rigs dotting the otherwise beautiful horizon" is apparently no longer a valid reason). You sound just like the average Republitard DJ with your disingenious questions about "what does Obama believe about drilling?"; the worst part of the question isn't that it is copied almost verbatim from other people, but that what Obama "believes" about drilling is irrelevant because only the mandates he issues, directives he gives, and laws passed by Congress, all of which can be obtained, in writing, matter in regards to "drilling", none of which you reference or cite in your argument.
    As for the Nukes, I was going to say something else, but it really does boil down to your inability to associate your arguments with existential reality and your disinclination to do so.
    Your conclusion is based on your own falsifiable information and specious reasoning. Even better, you've completely avoided arguing against the premise of the blog post.

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